Internationally, many perspectives on eastern Europe and its art and culture emerge from considerations of the past: projects that deal with the legacy of socialism, the transition to capitalism, and the trauma brought on by oppressive dictatorial policies. However, an emerging generation of artists, architects and cultural workers are focussing on the present and the future, developing practices that give voice to the voiceless and build a more engaged civil society.
Romania has been undergoing major changes since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. Adopting capitalism, building a democratic government, joining the European Union in 2008, and other major changes have resulted in both positive and negative social outcomes. Today, artists such as ColectivA, Maria Draghici, h.arta, David Schwartz, studioBASAR and Ioana Păun are engaging with these complexities in their work, subverting systems of control or criticising harmful government policies while drawing on modes of resistance to oppression in Romania's past. While racism, classism and sexism persist, as public spaces continue to be privatised and homelessness and unemployment remain major problems, art is being used to draw attention to such issues and enable public engagement about them.
The architect team studioBASAR present methods for altering unused public spaces into places for encounter, dialogue, and socialisation. Cutia cu Scule (The Toolbox) envisions public space as mutable and full of potential for shaping public life. A portable wooden structure, it folds up and dismantles into various types of furniture and can be installed anywhere in public space. Wheeled out to a chosen location, once assembled, this structure transforms a pavement into a cinema, a park into a workspace, or a garden into an exhibition space. Though relatively simple in its design, Cutia cu Scule is dynamic in its function, facilitating the creation of new spaces within public space.
As Romania's urban centres continue to grow and change, the experience of urban life shifts as well. For some, it means less access to public spaces for gathering, for others it means fear of forced eviction in gentrifying neighborhoods like the Rahova-Uranus neighborhood in Bucharest. Ten years ago, its proximity to the city's center marked it as a site for development, and the neighbourhood's low-income residents began to be forcibly removed from their homes without options for alternative housing. As a collective started by Draghici, Bogdan Georgescu, and Irina Gâdiuţă, Ofensiva Generozităţii facilitated projects in which artists and local residents collaborated to lead art workshops, stage plays in the neighbourhood and organise performances. The contributions by local residents and other artists provided new ways to embolden the community’s political engagement. Eventually, the collective established a community center, LaBomba, in a former discotheque that was partially being used as a sewing shop. After its forced closure in 2011, Scoală în Stradă (School in the Street) turned streets and sidewalks into free spaces for learning. Through a process of collective creative engagement, a community which once had no voice in the future of its neighbourhood configured spaces of its own to convene, learn, debate and empower itself.
In Cluj's working-class neighbourhood Mănăștur, a large open field, once only partially used, has now become an active site for public engagement. In 2012 the organization ColectivA, together with a team of architects, anthropologists, designers and artists, collaborated with local residents to design and build on the space, transforming it to better serve the community. Mănăștur is a densely populated area with large apartment complexes that lack proper facilities like communal greenspaces, sufficient parking and reliable garbage disposal. Many of these issues can be related to the marginalised status of its working class and low-income population, or to its location far from the city centre. La Terenuri – Spaţiu Comun in Mănăștur (La Terenuri – Communal Space in Mănăștur) has evolved into a growing community arts initiative, converting the unused field into a communal site for gathering, holding diverse performances and events, and for community gardening.
Through methods of redefining, reclaiming and repurposing public spaces, studioBASAR, Draghici and ColectivA enact possibilities for civic action in places that are often overlooked. Their creative practices imagine new ways for people to participate in a cultural environment and take ownership over public spaces.
Intervening beyond physical spaces, the artistic collective h.arta (Maria Crista, Anca Gyemant, Rodica Tache) critique daily life in Romania. As principles of capitalism (with its focus on individualism) and democracy (with its focus on participatory action) clash, h.arta promotes practices grounded in solidarity. In a recent interview, the artists stated that their friendship is at the root of what they do and that they “see friendship as a practice of collaborative learning as well as a political statement about solidarity.” h.arta have developed projects that serve as creative tools for constructing public dialogue, as well as educational experiences that address difficult conflicts in contemporary society. In 2007, they organised Project Space, a communal place for activities and discussions that examined feminism, post-communism, education, among others. In 2011 the artists co-authored with Roma activist Carmen Gheorghe See me as I am, a publication that features case studies and experiences of Roma women affected by racism and sexism both within their own communities and in Romanian society.
Playwright and director David Schwartz investigates the personal within the political. Using theatre as part documentary, part collaborative art-making, Schwartz's works expose the multi-faceted nature of social and political conflicts in Romania. His recent plays have examined topics such as the brutal death of a homeless parking attendant at the hands of the Bucharest police (Voi n-aţi văzut nimic!/You didn't see anything!, written in collaboration with Alexandru Fifea and Cătălin Rulea), the decline and deterioration of the Jiu Valley mining communities (Sub Pământ: Valea Jiului după 1989/Underground: the Jiu Valley after 1989, written in collaboration with Mihaela Michailov), and the struggles of five immigrants seeking asylum in Romania (Nu n-am nascut în locul portivit/Born in the wrong place, written in collaboration with Alice Monica Marinescu). The dialogue in these plays is taken verbatim from the real life people depicted in the stories. Schwartz's plays are diverse representations of the varying, contradictory and convergent personal histories that intersect within Romania today.
Artist and director Ioana Păun also gives visibility to marginalised communities. While developing a project for Lakeside Kunstraum in in Klagenfurt, Austria, Păun met a group of immigrant domestic workers from different east European countries, Romania included. Though their labour was important and others depended upon them, they remained invisible in society because of their status as foreigners working low-paid jobs. Păun created an installation which turned on the lights in the gallery depending on the levels of activity of the workers, measured by a digital monitoring device. The physical exertion of these anonymous workers was transferred into energy for the gallery's lights, unveiling in real time the intensity of the work being done.
Păun abstracts these difficult situations through the intimacy of a story or the flickering of a light
For the play Produse Domestice/Domestic Products, Păun worked with Filipino immigrants who work in Romania as maids and caretakers for wealthy citizens. During her research, done in collaboration with journalist Laura Ștefănuț, Păun met Ynia, a domestic worker who became the lead actress in the play. Ynia recounted her stories of mistreatment and exploitation, as well as the struggles and anxieties of her Filipino friends and co-workers. Produse Domestice exposes the hardships of immigrant workers outside Romania, as well as within it. While 2-3 million Romanians work away from the country in search of better opportunities, many leaving behind their families and taking low paying jobs in other places, the cycle of exploitative labour continues inside the country as workers from South Asia come to take low-wage jobs. Păun abstracts these difficult situations through the intimacy of a story or the flickering of a light.
By focussing on how people participate in public space and the debates that arise within them, these artists are taking creativity beyond the production of objects. As Romanian society transforms, artists are questioning their role and finding new ways of questioning the world today. Taking cues from daily life, they are responding to issues in the public consciousness, expanding the possibilities for action and collective participation.